The sultan of Sulu and others responsible for the Sabah standoff are facing investigation and possible charges for a crisis that has entered its third week.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima on Thursday told reporters that President Aquino had tasked a fact-finding committee to look into possible violations of the law by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, his brother Agbimuddin Kiram, their followers and their collaborators in the occupation of Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town, Sabah.
De Lima said subpoenas were being prepared by the joint fact-finding committee of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group.
“As we speak right now, they are preparing various subpoenas and invitations. Subpoenas to be issued to those we think are involved and therefore can be prospective or would-be respondents in the charges to be filed later, if warranted. And invitations to those who can serve as resource persons and can provide certain information… who may not be necessarily involved but have information or leads that can guide our probers,” De Lima said.
Among the charges that Jamalul and his followers may possibly face include inciting to war or giving motives for reprisal; illegal possession of firearms; illegal assembly and violation of the gun ban imposed by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), she said.
Still being studied is the possible filing of rebellion charges against the group, according to De Lima, who said this move needed to be evaluated by the joint fact-finding committee.
“For each crime, there are elements. I’m not sure if all the elements of rebellion or inciting to sedition are present here,” she said.
The Sulu sultan has continued to defy President Aquino’s appeal to him to order home his 235 followers, some of whom are armed, from Sabah.
The President had given Kiram’s group until Wednesday to return home or face the consequences, including being charged with inciting to war or giving motives for reprisal for their actions in Sabah.
After the latest deadline for Jamalul’s followers to leave Sabah lapsed on Tuesday, Malacañang sought another extension of “several days” of the grace period given by the Malaysian government for Jamalul’s followers to leave Tanduao and return to Sulu.
In a Feb. 26 order by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) released Thursday, the fact-finding body tasked to investigate the circumstances of the Sabah standoff was required to submit as soon as possible its report “whether preliminary or final, on its findings, and to forthwith prepare and file the appropriate criminal charges, if warranted, against those who may be found to be criminally liable.”
De Lima made it clear that President Aquino had given the sultan’s followers the chance to return home peacefully during the first few days of the crisis.
“Had they returned earlier, it was possible they would not have been charged,” she said, noting this was one of the options that the government discussed earlier into the standoff.
“But now that they have taken a hardline stance despite the personal appeal of the President, then it’s hard to say now that if they return there will be no cases awaiting them,” she added.
De Lima also said that the government wants to have very “comprehensive” findings so that when the cases are filed, they will be “airtight” and that all of those involved are charged.
She said this was “better” than charging “piecemeal” where the “participants by inducement are charged first before the participants by direct participation.”
De Lima said the joint committee was basically looking at filing charges that have “extraterritorial” application.
For instance, she said the charge of inciting to war or giving motives for reprisal in violation of Article 118 of the Revised Penal Code had extraterritorial application.
De Lima cited in news reports that the standoff was now threatening the barter trade in Mindanao and threatening the livelihood of other Filipinos in Malaysia who fear reprisals by Malaysian authorities.
She said another possible charge is that of illegal possession of firearms, which she stressed is a crime in the Philippines.
But she said Malaysia may have laws that penalize unlicensed firearms.
Representatives of the United Nations met with Jamalul on Thursday about extending humanitarian assistance to his followers holed up in Tanduao.
Jamalul did not tell reporters the extent of his discussions with the UN representatives, but his spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, said the sultan’s guests committed humanitarian assistance only and that the talks did not touch on the standoff.
Idjirani said the sultanate hoped the meeting with the UN representatives was the beginning of a “road to attaining peace.”
Jamalul himself told reporters that he did not meet with any representatives from Malacanang and that the meeting with the UN representatives was “more in favor of us.”
Agbimuddin’s group in Tanduao remains adamant about staying there.
He told a radio interview that all negotiations should be through his brother, Jamalul, in Manila.
“If this happens here in the same incident (where) Malaysian authorities will decide to file charges against them and arrest them and even if they have cases here, then we might not be able to get them (to come here immediately),” she said.
De Lima, meanwhile, said the government was also interested to find out who were behind this incident, who are its supporters and who are the provocateurs.
“We have certain information (about supporters and provocateurs) and I have asked the NBI-PNP-CIDG to pursue it,” she said.
The standoff in Sabah remains unchanged for the third week on Thursday.
Numerous reports have emerged of an imminent attack by security forces on the group. One report claimed that several soldiers came close to Tanduao where the followers of the Sulu sultan are holed up.
A heavy presence of security personnel was observed at various strategic locations surrounding the seaside village late Wednesday.
Sabah police also declined to comment if shots were fired in the area on Wednesday evening although nearby villagers claimed to have heard them.
The Sulu group leader, Agbimuddin Kiram, told Philippine media that his men had fired warning shots after spotting what he claimed were six Malaysian security personnel entering the village.
While claiming that they came to Sabah in peace, Agbimuddin warned that his followers were willing to “fight to the death” if provoked.—With reports from Marlon Ramos in Manila and The Star/Asia News Network